Wednesday, July 29, 2009

From Angel's Landing to Sin City

With the exception of the peculiarities of Yellowstone the parks in Utah were by far the most awe inspiring and exquisite. I didn’t get much sleep during my week in Utah. I chased the sun from its disappearance to its reappearance on the horizon, standing in amphitheatres and on canyon rims to watch shadows fall from the earth’s awkward protrusions. I hiked early in the morning and late at night, saving the hot desert afternoons for café stops and commutes in between the parks. At cafés I fueled up on espresso and chatted up the locals for info on the area. I ditched my GPS and drove in complete serenity through Utah (well except for all those RV’s I had to slow down for.) This last week in southern Utah was the best week of my road trip.

Many people I met throughout my travels said that the parks in Utah were their favorite. By the time I reached my first Utah park I had already visited 16 National Parks (mostly in the West) and consequently had already seen some of the most beautiful parts of this country. My expectations were high yet I was still blown away by the sheer beauty of it all. Even the drives in between parks, through National Monuments, National Recreation Areas and even through tiny mining cities were enough to make me pull off the road, get out of the car and stare jaw-dropped at the land. In a marathon last week I spent each new day in a new Utah park, starting with Arches on the Southeast side of Utah and ending with Zion on the Southwest side.

It was sad to leave Colorado without seeing more of its beauty. Namely I really wanted to get a sense of the Front Range area (metro Denver), yet I had to catalog my craving for another day or weekend perhaps. I took the highway down from Vail and west into Utah. Anja, the friend I had stayed with in Vail suggested that I duck down off the highway early and enter Arches National Park through the back. This back road barely had a painted line down the middle and there were few cars traveling on it. Within an hour of the park the landscape started to turn into deep shades of red and from a distance I could see rigid tower-like shapes sticking out of the side of mountains. The nearer I drove the more towers I could see and soon I was driving right alongside these giant walls of red.

(along Route 191)

The park’s two campgrounds were full when I arrived, so I turned back around and grabbed a campsite on the Colorado River just a few miles from the park’s entrance. I bummed around for the evening, driving through the local city strip in Moab and hanging out back at my campsite starting dinner and planning a hike for the following morning. I came across “Delicate Arch” in my Fodor’s book and read that it was a must-see sunset hike. I checked my watch, 7:00pm. As soon as my water boiled, I dumped it into an MRE, threw it in my car and drove back to the park. I spooned out freeze-dried chunks of lasagna as I maneuvered through the windy roads of Arches, almost hitting a frightened big-horn sheep that ran out in front of me. I made it to the trailhead at 8:00pm just in time to start the hike and just in time to meet Evan and Will. Will had been on a shorter, yet fun-packed road trip that started in Connecticut and would end shortly in San Jose, CA. Evan was along for the ride, taking advantage of the spectacular photo opportunities. We all hiked in together to catch the sunset.

The “must-see” park knowledge was widespread and there were dozens of people already in place to watch the sunset when we arrived. The arch began a golden hue and then, as the sun mixed with clouds and dropped over the horizon the arch turned darker shades of red until just the silhouette of the arch stood out in the darkness. It was past 9:00pm and the three of us were the last people at the arch. Evan took a few silhouette photographs of Will and I and then we strapped our lit headlamps to our heads and started the hike back to the parking lot. Before we parted ways we set tentative plans to catch sunrise in the morning; tentative based on the weather and our ability to wake up early.

(Will and I strike a pose)

Back at my campsite I tossed and turned in the heat, hoping a cool breeze would circulate through my tent and allow me some sleep. I may have gotten a few hours of sleep that night between the stagnant heat, my noisy neighbors and the anticipation of the catching sunrise. I packed up and left my campsite at 4:00am, arriving at the Landscape Arch trailhead at 5:00am. The sky was cloudy and I half-expected the guys not to show up. During my wait I boiled some hot water for an MRE breakfast and tea. I started to snooze in my car when a van pulled up. It was barely light outside, but I could count seven people pile out of the van and make their way over to the trailhead. Forty-five minutes had passed and I was pretty sure the guys had slept in, so I got out of the car and asked the group if I could hike with them. Soon I discovered that they were a family from Iowa. The mom and dad, in their fifties were celebrating a big anniversary (30 years I think) and with them were their three sons, one with a wife and one of the parent’s fathers. They were simply a delight to hike with. We made it all the way out to a blackened statue in the desert called “Dark Angel” and back, covering almost eight miles. I left them at the parking lot and moved on to quickly take in the rest of the park before it got too hot.

(the family I hiked with)

When I left Arches and I stationed myself at a café in downtown Moab for the afternoon, avoiding the 100+ temperature. Here I met a nice gentleman who sat down next to me with a map and showed me some fantastic driving routes through Southern Utah. I scribbled down route numbers on a torn piece of paper and put it in my pocket. Not before long I was back on the road headed towards the northern section of Canyonlands called Island in the Sky. It was still rather hot and so I kept my hikes to a minimum. I drove around all the paved sections of the park and took a peek at the landscape every chance I could get. My walk along the canyon rim was lovely and I started to anticipate how grand the Grand Canyon might be in comparison. Before I left I couldn’t resist hiking to Upheaval Dome, which was a spot in the earth where a meteor was rumored to have hit. The meteor left a large hole in the mountain with rock shaved away to reveal a sea foam green color. I was very amused by the color. After spending some time staring at the rock I got back in my car and drove to the south section of the park, called Needles.

(me at upheaval dome)

It was getting dark by the time I neared Needles and I thought it best to get a campsite anywhere along my drive. I pulled into a tiny campground on a narrow road that led to a lookout of Needles, a lookout which the café owner had highly recommended. There was one other couple here and they had just arrived themselves. I chatted with them about the weather, noticing that the sky was filling with dark clouds. I continued my drive around the campground loop and noticed two other guys sitting in their car at one of the campsites. They looked sketchy and I kept a watchful eye on them. Moments later the two men drove away slowly, idling for too long near where I was setting up my tent. I didn’t think much of this at the time as I was in hot pursuit of another sunset. I took off as soon as I staked my tent and drove the eighteen miles to the end of the narrow road to reach the lookout. The dark storm clouds were dramatic and overpowered the setting sun. The lookout was amazing though; from the canyon rim where I stood the bumpy canyon floor continued on as far as the eye could see, which with the setting sun was less and less distance by the second. I ran around the fenced off perimeter of the canyon rim, catching as many angles as possible and then ran back into my car before the sky turned completely black. Back at my campsite while I was preparing dinner a car slowly entered and took a drive around the loop. I hid from the car, my immediate thought was that the two guys had come back to kidnap me. I’ll admit I was slightly delirious from lack of sleep. Leery of being kidnapped and getting struck by lightning I decided to sleep in the passenger seat of my car.

(sunset at Needles)

I woke up refreshed and with renewed sanity. I went to disassemble my tent I noticed that one of the rain fly zippers was undone. I could have easily forgotten to zip it the night before, but nonetheless I was reassured that sleeping in the car was in fact a good idea, and a comfortable one at that. The couple a few campsites over invited me to breakfast that morning and obliged, I joined them. I left before the day got too hot and checked out Needles. I did a few short hikes here, noting that a multiple-day backpack journey into the merging of the Colorado and the Green River would have been more exciting than the measly one-mile hikes I was catching off the side of the road. On my drive out to Capitol Reef I stopped at Natural Bridges National Monument and got in a beautiful hike in between the Sipapu and Kachina Bridges. I met up with a family from Madagascar upon reaching the second bridge and shared in a good conversation with them as we hiked our way up and out of the valley. I drove quickly that evening to reach Capitol Reef before sunset.

Same as the evening before it got dark before I reached the park. Not chancing the lack of campsites I decided to spend the night at a motel in Hanksville, UT. Plus I was really in need of charging my camera battery, so my decision seemed further justified. The run-down motel was your typical setting for a horror movie. The “lobby” was smoky and small and the table to the right offered free hot water and instant coffee or tea. The wall to the right featured several framed photos of people, a handful of whom were extraordinarily bloody. When the owner came back into the lobby after escorting some folks to their room I asked him first if there was vacancy and second what the deal was with the bloody pictures. He pointed to a bloody woman said that was his ex-wife. He immediately laughed when he saw my terrified reaction and told me there had been a horror movie filmed there a few years back; figures. I was happy to have electricity and internet for the night, even if there may have been “fake” blood stains all over the place (which, for the record I couldn’t detect.)

The following day I took off to Capitol Reef and got in an early morning hike out to the Canyon Rim. In line with my experience in Canyonlands I felt I could have gotten a much better experience of the park if I had the time to do a multiple-day hike getting further away from the road. I jokingly titled my photo album from Canyonlands and Capitol Reef “The Worst of Utah” because many people skip over these two parks. They are farther away from the highway and sandwiched between the more popular parks and that is perhaps why the reason why more people don’t make it a point to stop. These parks have a more subtle beauty that I hope to experience more intimately someday.

(along Route 12)

Leaving Capitol Reef I picked up Route 12 which is said to be one of the most beautiful drives in the world. Based on what I had seen so far of the world I have to agree. It was quite difficult to keep my eyes on the road and I often had to pull over. I got to Bryce Canyon National Park well before sunset and after I secured a camping spot I drove around the park. The first time I got a glimpse into the Bryce amphitheater I got a craving for creamsicle ice cream. The “hoodoos” in the amphitheater were all shades of cream and orange. As I think of it now I’m still craving creamsicle! I drove up and down the canyon taking in the views and made my way to a lookout at Inspiration Point to catch sunset. The park was just so darn pretty and I was anxious to hike into the amphitheater the following morning.

(sunset in the amphitheater)

I got a great night of sleep and awoke at 5:30am to start my hike into the amphitheater. Not only did I get to experience a tremendous sunrise but I got the whole amphitheater all to myself for nearly three hours. I walked the “Fairyland” eight-mile loop and didn’t run into people until my sixth mile. I was giddy the entire hike; I felt like an ant surrounded by creamsicle pops. I have no more words to describe it – it’s definitely something you need to experience firsthand to really understand.

I was certain Zion National Park couldn’t be any more beautiful. I got to the park later that afternoon in the hottest part of the day. I tied up my hammock at my campsite and took a sweaty nap before I decided I needed some AC. I drove out of the park to the west, with intentions of seeing the northwest side of the park before I headed back to my campsite for the night. I stumbled upon a cute little café in Virgin, UT and stopped in for an espresso and some internet. I had a lovely chat with the owner who recommended I go up through the middle of the park instead of the northwest side. The temperature dropped over twenty degrees as my car climbed up through the mountains. I enjoyed the cool, smoky overlook into the park and relished in what I knew to be one of my last moments of solitude.

Back at the campsite I touched based with my friend Scott who would be my next and final stop on the road trip. I suggested he drive up from Las Vegas that night and hike with me in the morning. I went to bed with no hopes of having a hiking partner in the morning, but much to my surprise when my phone turned on at 5:00am I received a message from Scott saying he had driven overnight and was sleeping in his car in the parking lot of a motel just outside the park. I had him drive in to meet me at my campsite and we walked through the dark to the visitor center to catch the shuttle to the Grotto. Other than us there were a handful of early morning hikers hitting the same Angel’s Landing trail. We booked it up the mountain gaining distance on everyone else and gained even more distance after blowing through the 21 compact switchbacks called Walter’s Wiggles with no problem. In just less than an hour we were 80% to summit and stood before our first set up chains. I had an idea of what to expect for this last half mile. Everyone I had spoken to about the trail, including park rangers and the owner of the café I visited yesterday asked if I was afraid of heights. For the last half mile the trail gets as narrow as three feet with a drop-off of over 800 feet on one side and nearly 1,200 feet on the other side. A chain is mostly present for this last stretch, which not only helps to keep you from falling off the cliff but also helps you pull yourself up the steep bits. It is highly recommended that people with a fear of heights avoid this last section. After hanging off the ledge of Half Dome in Yosemite staring nearly 5,000 feet into the valley floor I figured that heights wasn’t a real concern of mine.

(going up the last half mile of Angel's Landing)

Scott and I were first to reach summit of Angel’s Landing that day, well except for the park cafeteria worker who started his hike at 4:00am. I was blown away with Zion’s beauty, which immediately trumped that of Bryce. We sat on top of the exposed rock taking in the never-ending canyon vistas all around us. From this mountain peak we could see down into the many crevasses of the canyon and into the start of the Narrows to the north end of the park. I closed my eyes for a while and listened to the silent cries of the early morning sky. The experience was incredibly serene. We left our peaceful perch after about an hour, leaving just before a bus full of sullen teenagers reached summit. Our next hike was through the Narrows which follows the Virgin River between two giant canyon walls. Our trusty Choco sandals led us through uncertain river terrain with the water levels reaching up to four feet in some spots. Scott identified a deeper patch of water about two miles in. We spent some time there jumping off of rocks and into the water. It was the perfect way to stay cool on this really hot desert day.

(Scott climbing up on the rock)

From there we drove to Las Vegas. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but I will say this… The first evening in Vegas, following the serene summit to Angel’s Landing couldn’t have been more of a stark contrast. On the subsequent night I went to an Aerosmith concert with some friends I made in Vail, CO. I was happy to meet up with familiar faces in the endless sea of greedy, disgusting and uninhibited bachelors and bachelorettes of Sin City. I will also say that beyond the cheese and fantasy that makes that city tick are the mountains, a perfect escape; now that’s a part of Vegas I could get used to.

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